Entrenched and gendered attitudes in Australian workplaces are leading women women to abandon careers in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM), as well as chasing away others from the options in the first place, according to a new report from the University of South Australia (UniSA).
The South Australian Academy for Gender Equity in STEM (SAAGES) report includes feedback and recommendations from 75 professionals and students engaged with the sector at a time when, despite a spike in the number of girls studying STEM at school and university, they then abandon that career path.
The key issues they identified are:
- An unsupportive or hostile work culture
- Entrenched, pervasive attitudes – in the workplace, community and within families – that associate STEM careers with men and not women
- Unconscious bias perpetuating gender stereotypes in many workplaces, including the misplaced belief that women (especially mothers) have different skill sets to men
- Inequitable language in the workplace and media, reinforcing gendered stereotypes, including emphasising ‘masculine’ technical skills over ‘feminine’ soft skills
- Inflexible work practices
- Lack of female role models in senior leadership positions.
Lead report author Dr Deborah Devis says the feedback demonstrates that Australia has a long way to go to achieve gender equity in the STEM workforce.
“These obstacles raised by women working in the sector should be a red flag as they continue to exacerbate critical STEM industry workforce shortages across the country,” she said.
“There are hundreds of ‘women in STEM’ programs across Australia but the impact of these programs is unclear.
“We have seen a significant increase in girls studying STEM subjects in schools and undergraduate degrees, but only a small increase in postgraduate programs and young women pursuing STEM careers. The number of women holding senior management roles in STEM industries is also very low.”
To find solutions to these challenges, the SAAGES taskforce produced specific recommendations for three STEM groups: future employees, current employees, and leaders.
For future STEM workers they include mentoring, outreach positions, network building programs (including young entrepreneurs), and building relationships between students and companies. For current employees, areas of focus in fertility policies, workplace flexibility, equal pay parental leave, and evaluation of internal culture.
And leaders should consider inclusive leadership training, rewarding equitable leaders, non-financial leadership incentives for women, and men’s advocacy for women.
Report co-author, Dr Florence Gabriel, says diversity is not just an ethical concern or a box to tick.
“According to a recent study of 1000 companies worldwide, those in the top 25% for gender diversity were found to be 21% more likely to be more profitable and 27% more likely to be more creative,” she said.
“These high-performing companies not only had more women on their staff; they also had a greater gender mix in their senior leadership.”
In Australia, only 16% of the STEM skilled workforce are women, and 90% of women with a STEM qualification work in non-STEM related fields, according to the Australian Academy of Science.
The feedback from women who took part in the study said the sector remains a difficult environments for women to thrive in and an unsupportive, and sometimes hostile work environment is the main reason women left jobs in STEM. Inflexible work hours and a failure to acknowledge that women carry the burden of responsibility when it comes to care for children and older parents is another major obstacle.
The report is available here:
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